Alberta budget weakens environmental, climate monitoring: Opposition

EDMONTON — As Alberta prepares to release details on its new climate plan, critics are wondering about cuts to environmental monitoring and greenhouse gas management already spelled out in last week’s budget.

“We will have diminished capacity,” said Marlin Schmidt, New Democrat environment critic. “We won’t know if we’re meeting environmental standards or not.”

According to departmental business plans, the office of science and monitoring within Alberta Environment will take a five per cent cut next year, to just under $74 million. That’s the office that oversees the overall impact of industrial development in the province, including the oilsands.

That office will continue to receive a $50 million levy from industry specifically for oilsands monitoring.

As well, the emissions management office is to take a 20 per cent cut by 2023. That office is partly responsible for measuring and verifying greenhouse gas emissions in the province, as well as checking compliance with other environmental regulations.

“All of those things are significantly diminished,” said Shannon Phillips, a New Democrat MLA who was the former environment minister.

The province has not provided an explanation for the cuts or a response to those concerns.

The new budget also slashed spending at the agency responsible for approving and assessing energy development in the province. The Alberta Energy Regulator will lose about 22 per cent of its budget.

“Reducing both environmental monitoring programs and our energy regulator capacity does not make us a world-class resource and environmental manager,” said Ben Israel, an analyst with the Pembina Institute, which is a clean energy think tank.

The United Conservative government is currently examining the regulator’s operations.

Schmidt suggests the new funding regime will mean Albertans will have to increasingly rely on industry self-reporting.

“I don’t think that’s their job,” he said. “It should be the government of Alberta who manages and reports on our climate change strategy.”

Those concerns come as the province prepares to release details of its new climate change policy on Tuesday.

The plan will not contain a carbon tax. But it is expected to impose a levy on large industrial emitters for every tonne of carbon that exceeds a regulatory benchmark.

The details of how that benchmark will be set and what the cost per tonne hasn’t been announced, although most expect it to be $30 a tonne.

Earlier this month, the government told Environment Department employees that it was ending stand-alone offices for climate change and environmental monitoring.

Opposition members of the legislature warned at the time that the moves were a prelude to funding cuts.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2019.

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